‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Hits the Spot for Some Fresh MCU Action

As we wait for the next big Marvel movie to finally drop after a year of pandemic and delays, Disney competently fills the need with “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” Partly a sequel to 2019’s massive “Avengers: Endgame,” it’s also a throwback to a TV tradition going back to Saturday morning entertainment. Of course what we used to watch back in the day never came close to the kind of budget Marvel and Disney splurge here. The easy- to-follow plotting is just meant to keep us rooting for the heroes and get ready for the next slew of films. Real joy is in the skillful way it’s all pulled off with visual energy and classic comic book storytelling.

Set a few months after the events of “Endgame,” the story focuses on Sam Wilson aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), the steel-winged Avenger entrusted by Captain America with his shield at the end of that apocalyptic opus. But Sam does not feel worthy of taking on the Captain America mantle and donates the shield to the Smithsonian, which has a grand exhibit commemorating those days after galactic warlord Thanos snapped his fingers and millions disappeared in “The Blip.” Even as Sam continues to battle new threats, his personal life is facing more down-to-earth troubles. He returns home to discover that because of the devastation caused by The Blip, his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) is planning on selling the family fishing boat and thus their business. In other corners of the globe Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) drinks hard and grapples with the leftover memories of his days as a minion of Hydra. He has been trying to find ways to make amends with his past victims. Maybe he can start finding peace by getting to know a bartender (Miki Ishikawa) who takes him up on a date offer. There’s never rest for heroes however, and Sam is soon called back into action when an underground movement called the Flag Smashers, who want a world without borders and will bring it about with terrorism.

For all its hype, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is not that expansive of a show, at least in its initial stage. Unlike the trippy and brilliantly experimental “WandaVision,” this series works like a smaller cousin of MCU action romps like “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Visually it never looks like television and keeps intact the films’ widescreen style and top of the line special effects. The pilot opens with some thrilling sequences featuring Sam as Falcon stopping some evil doers flying through the air, dueling with hijacked airplanes and dodging gunfire. With just one episode “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” already shames everything in The CW’s Arrowverse. This also helps connect the series aesthetically to the movies. What producer and MCU guru Kevin Feige has always understood more than other producers tackling this kind of material, is the very nature of comic books. They are worlds onto themselves that fans immerse in. In this spirit “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” works as a bookend or side story to the much grander big screen storylines.

Even as the show opens with some stellar action, there’s much strong writing when it comes to Sam’s personal world. He’s too humble to become Captain America, and while he may be famous as Falcon, the bank still won’t give him and Sarah a loan to keep their business afloat. In a great bit of dialogue a banker asks Sam if being an Avenger even comes with a salary. The best Sam can say is that lots of charitable individuals give to the cause, which makes you wonder what an Avengers benefits package consists of after all that dangerous world-saving that goes on. Bucky is also strongly written and doesn’t get wasted in pure action scenes. In the first hour of the season he’s a tortured soul going to therapy, battling PTSD and finding it awkward to build social relations. He is 106 years old after all, so there’s a lot of baggage to deal with. But unlike other shallow adventures, this all makes Bucky feel real. He has a friend in an old man living in the same building, but it turns out there might be a heartbreaking connection there to Bucky’s past misdeeds. There are consequences to the violence and choices made in this world.

There’s still room for an old-fashioned terrorist plot and before long “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” put Sam on the trail of the Flag Smashers. The MCU always features villains with motives that challenge the viewer. Here the Flag Smashers are inspired by the collective pain of “The Blip” to call for a world without nationalism and borders. It’s not exactly the worst proposition, but the terrorism angle is what turns them into villains. Much of it consists of the usual like blowing up major events and leaving stylish graffiti on public property. Comics have always crafted adversaries to go with the times. This week “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” also has a scene with terrorists promoting humanity’s return to the Dark Ages as a reaction to economic and social calamity. Here there’s not much to go on in the pilot, but it’s a good set-up for a scheme that will no doubt take on grander dimensions as the season speeds on. Much of the MCU’s success is owed to its combination of inventiveness and familiar action filmmaking. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” has just enough of both to satisfy fans and casual viewers. Until the next film, this is a series that hits the spot.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” begins streaming March 19 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Disney+.